A. Introduction

Why 'the Fall of Rome'?

Since Edward Gibbon wrote his great work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the late eighteenth century, the question of what happened to cause the collapse of the Roman Empire, and with it Roman civilisation, has preoccupied historians. Historians have generated an ever increasing body of data as to what happened during the three centuries when the Empire went into terminal decline, but they continue to disagree as to the precise reasons for the Empire’s fall. The traditional view was that Roman civilisation was simply destroyed by the barbarian hordes who invaded Europe in the 4th-5th centuries. This view was long ago abandoned in favour of other approaches which question the effect of changes in military and political power on Roman society and its culture. But there have always been historians who insist that the barbarians were the key to the collapse, and others who have argued that the barbarian invasions made little or no difference. There are even some historians who argue that Rome never ‘fell’ at all. Nevertheless, the idea of a ‘decline’ is still rooted in most historians’ approaches to the period c.250-550.

This course will introduce you to an exciting period of history that might with some justice be called the birth of the modern world. It will also help you to think about the historical process itself – in other words, why historians think as they do. Through the work of historians from Gibbon to the present day, you will explore why certain questions have been asked about the European past, what kinds of historical evidence have been used to answer such questions, and how our understanding of the period itself has changed under the scrutiny of historians. As a result, you will explore some of the different methods employed by historians, including archaeology, artistic and cultural history, religious history, sociology, anthropology and gender, as well as examining more traditional inter-pretations based on military, political and constitutional history. In so doing, you will discover how the approach taken by historians can reveal their preoccupation with fundamental issues facing their own age – issues such as war, revolution, ethnic and racial integration, class divisions and so on.

Map of the Roman Empire at the End of the Fourth Century

Map: The Roman Empire at the End of the Fourth Century

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